Deal names Ray, Branch to fill Appeals Court vacancies

Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday picked a Gwinnett County judge and an Atlanta lawyer to fill vacancies on the Georgia Court of Appeals.

Superior Court Judge Billy Ray, a former state legislator, will replace Keith Blackwell, recently elevated by Deal to the Georgia Supreme Court. Ray will be sworn in on Monday.

Lisa Branch, a partner with Smith, Gambrell & Russell, will replace Charles Mikell, who will retire from the bench on Aug. 31.

"It's exciting, particularly having been a trial judge for almost 11 years now and previously serving in the Legislature," Ray said. "It gives me a fairly complete perspective. I feel like I'm prepared for it."

Ray, 49, once chaired the Gwinnett Republican Party and served in the state Senate from 1997 to 2002. He was appointed to the Gwinnett bench in 2002 by then-Gov. Roy Barnes. As a judge, Ray founded Gwinnett's drug court in 2005 and presided over it until this past June.

Branch, 44, served from 2004 to 2008 as a senior official under President George W. Bush. She first worked at the Department of Homeland Security, then at the Office of Management and Budget.

Branch's governmental affairs practice includes homeland security and regulatory issues. From 1994 to 1996, she served as a law clerk to J. Owen Forrester, a U.S. District Court judge in Atlanta.

"I told the governor this appointment is such an honor," Branch said. "I humbly accept it. It will be a privilege to serve on the Georgia Court of Appeals."